March 16, 2014
“That the World Might Be Saved”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Who remembered that the most famous verse in the all the Bible was part of this strange little story about Nicodemus? That’s a rhetorical question. I didn’t remember. I do remember being strongly encouraged to memorize John 3:16 in my pre-teen years, that and psalm 23. These are good things to have written on our hearts, and good things to come quickly to our lips. But Jesus’ words here don’t occur in a vacuum. There is a story, a reason that he spoke these things and they were meant for this man, Nicodemus, to hear. So rather than begin with John 3:16, let’s begin with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. John tells us that he is a Pharisee, so a member of the religious elite of the Jews, but more than that, he is a member of the Jewish ruling council, so he is a leader, a man with authority and power, and also a very observant follower of Jewish faith.
We find him only in the gospel of John but there we see him three times. The first is when he seeks Jesus out and he begins so strongly with a bold statement, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Right before this story begins we are told that Jesus, while the Passover was going in on Jerusalem, was doing many amazing things, many signs, beyond, it seems, what John decided to record (which were changing water into wine at the wedding and clearing out the temple with a whip in his hand).
So Nicodemus has heard of or seen some of these miraculous signs. And he has come by night to visit with Jesus. John is very specific about the time of day.
There is so much detail that is left out of Biblical stories that we wish was included, that when a unique detail like this is left in, there is a reason for it.
What does that tell us? (at New Stone: turn to the people around you and talk about why you think Nicodemus went to Jesus at night – what did you come up with?)
There have been several ways that readers and interpreters of this story have tried to make sense of the nighttime detail.
First, he could be traveling at night to avoid being seen. He is trying to guard his reputation since he is a teacher that Jesus should himself be coming to. Jesus has caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, especially with that whip business, so it is possible Nicodemus did not want to be seen associating with him. So he sneaks out to see Jesus.
Second option is that John is trying to tell us about Nicodemus’ understanding and faith. Light and dark are powerful images in John’s gospel. John opens his gospel by describing Jesus as life that was the light of men and that light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Darkness often times means unbelief. John may even hint at this in his writing, with the word that he uses for “know” in the Greek which is shorthand for telling us that Nicodemus knew only in a very limited way. His understanding was darkened.
A third option is that the rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. Nicodemus uses his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts, seeking wisdom and understanding from a new teacher. I like this portrayal of Nicodemus, as a man trying to understand what it all means, like we all do when we are faced with Jesus.
So Nicodemus has come to Jesus and stated that he knows that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God and the signs that Jesus performs are proof of this. Nicodemus is looking for new teaching from a new teacher. But Jesus answers him in a way he didn’t expect. Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above or again.”
The Greek word used there, “anothen,” has a double meaning that gets lost in translation and so each translation picks one and excludes the other – it means “again” or “anew” and “from above.” And there has been a lot of ink spilt about what that really means but I think it is easiest to think of it as something out of the ordinary, something other-worldly, which Nicodemus makes clear in his question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
This “being born again, from above” is not something that we accomplish – it miraculous, it is out of our control. Jesus tells him, in essence, that what is needed is transformation, and not a transformation he can achieve on his own. He must be born again, made new. No lesser form of transformation will work…. it’s not just a matter of changing our minds, or changing our moral behavior, or following a new teacher.
The problem with Nicodemus is that he already had a pretty settled sense of himself. He’s a Pharisee, an upright one, a leader of his people. He knows where he belongs and what he is supposed to do.
But are we any different? He’s got his life together, and sometimes we think we do to. And yet we come, as Nicodemus did, to Jesus, for more, for something better, for answers to our questions, for truth – and what we hear from Jesus is, you don’t need to act better, or do better, or be nicer, or stop screwing up – you need transformation, a new life, and you can’t do it for yourself.
Nadia Bolz-Weber who is a recovering addict and a Lutheran pastor of a decidedly unique church in Denver talks in her book “Pastrix” about what transformation feels like – she calls it resurrection: “Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like in those Easter pictures. I would have never agreed to work for God if I had believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsciously knew, even back then, was that God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new.
New doesn’t always look perfect . . . New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage not to mention when I’m right.
New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming – never even hoped for – but ends up being what was needed all along.”
The transformation comes from something really very simple. Jesus sums all this up with the verse that we all like the best, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
During my third year of seminary, I participated in a spiritual direction group where a spiritual director took us weekly through prayer exercises. And one week I remember specifically, she had brought a sculpture of an adult figure with arms wide holding a child in its lap, and the child was holding the adults hands and leaning back as if they were playing, like I have many times with my own kids.
And it came to me, through prayer as I was looking at this sculpture, where I had arrived at the end of my journey through seminary. And a quick word about seminary, it is not, or at least was not for me, a warm gooey place of faith fulfillment – it was hard work, learning things I wasn’t particularly interested in, learning things I never fully understood, learning things that made my head hurt, learning two ancient languages, and a whole new vocabulary of churchy words, and spending a lot of time learning about God without a whole lot of spare time to spend with God – and I was nearing the end of it. And in this time of prayer I understood finally what it all came down to, I am God’s child, loved and cherished.
There is a quote by Karl Barth, who is one of the most famous modern theologians, and who has written the Church Dogmatics, which takes up a whole library shelf, and not a lot of people have completely read – and the quote is that he was once asked if he could sum his entire life’s work in theology and he said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
And it seems that Jesus gives us something like that to hold onto with these two verses: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we don’t entirely understand what’s all involved with being born from above or born again. But we understand love. These verses tell us so much about the heart of God. The word for “world” (“kosmos” in Greek) everywhere else in the Gospel of John describes something that has complete hostility towards God. This gives John 3:16 a bit more power: “For God so loved the God-hating world that he sent his only Son …” That’s the greatness of God’s love.
Back to Nicodemus, the man who started this whole thing – we have lost him in the story. He slips out of view and we wonder, did he get it? Did he understand in the end? This is what we know of Nicodemus – he shows up again in the seventh chapter of John’s gospel, when the Pharisees want to seize Jesus, Nicodemus challenges them asking, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” And the Pharisees dismiss his argument and ridicule him.
We see him one last time, after Jesus has died and his body is taken down off the cross, Nicodemus comes with seventy five pounds of burial spices and wraps his body for burial. And he holds and touches Jesus and cares for him with love like family member would do. He took a man that his own people had condemned, and loved him, so perhaps we could say he got the message of Jesus after all. That’s transformation. A questioning man became a man of action and a man of love.
May the same be said of us. Amen.